The clang of hammer against metal was satisfying, as were the scent of the smoke, the warm glow of the fire. The forge was one of the few places where he could truly escape the weather. He could take off his parka, for once. His forearms were bare, and it felt good. Zhaoka allowed himself a thin smile as he gazed into the blaze. He raised his tongs and examined the blade he was crafting. He exhaled, then breathed in deeply, heat filling his mouth and lungs. It was a comforting sensation.
The blade wasn't finished yet, but it would be soon. This one, he had decided, would be for trade. So he wouldn't waste his energy struggling to perfect it. The best blades were for him. In them, he fought against the metal's imperfections, the stress of the heat, the limitations of the hammer--and won.
He was still holding the unfinished blade aloft as he turned to face Inuvik.
The man smiled, through the way he was tugging at his beard indicated something was amiss, or at least unusual. Inuvik's handling of his beard was a language of its own. Horuk would have come out and told him what the matter was right away, but Horuk was absent, as was Inuvik's brother Arluk. Inuvik was the least straightforward of the three men he worked with.
"Yes, what is it?" Zhaoka's tone was unabashedly annoyed. He hated being interrupted at his work.
"You have a visitor."
Zhaoka's brow creased. This was out of the ordinary. "Who is it?"
"Ah--" Inuvik hesitated. "Hahn."
Zhaoka plunged the hot blade into the cool basin of water at his side. Steam hissed, rising from the surface of the water towards the roof of the forge. "What does he want?"
Inuvik shrugged, stroking his beard, and Zhaoka guessed that Hahn made him uncomfortable. Sometimes Zhaoka wondered if he had known Inuvik before he had lost his memory, he had so quickly learned to read him. Not that Inuvik was exactly a cipher. But he did think he might have worked with the man at the forge before. It would have explained his feeling of affinity with the metal and the heat.
"I'll ask him myself, then."
Hahn was waiting outside, sitting in the snow. His head was tilted back as he gazed at the sky. He didn't seem aware of Zhaoka's presence at first. As he looked up, his face was open, relaxed, the strain absent from his eyes and mouth. He looked younger than he had the last time Zhaoka had seen him. After a few moments, Zhaoka cleared his throat, and Hahn turned towards him. Almost instantly, Hahn's face closed up, the strain pulling at him again. He aged in that instant. Instead of speaking, Hahn nodded by way of greeting.
Zhaoka wasn't sure what to make of this unexpected visit. It had been a few days since he had first met the young man, and they had had no more contact since that awkward meal they had shared. "What do you want?" he asked.
"You came to visit me," Hahn said. "So I'm visiting you."
"I'm working." This was a novel experience for Zhaoka. Although he spent time with the other men at the forge, he didn't receive what could truly be considered social calls.
He often thought he must have been responsible for something horrible, a great detriment to the tribe. No one would tell him why or how he had lost his memory. But that was not the worst thing. Wherever he went, whoever he spoke to--he could sense them holding back, pulling away from him. There were exceptions, of course. Chief Arnook was forthcoming with him, within certain limits. Horuk, although infrequently forthcoming, always listened to him, let him pour out his thoughts, his worries. Arluk was simply not the kind of man to hold back, always ready with a joke or friendly insult, and his brother Inuvik was much the same, if less clever about it.
"I'll watch you work," said Hahn, rising to his feet.
Hahn was a mystery to Zhaoka. The younger man had sought him out, first by watching him in his strange manner, and now by visiting him at the forge. Yet the reasons for his interest were unclear, if not completely incomprehensible.
"I'd rather not have an audience," Zhaoka said.
"I don't care," Hahn sniffed. Rising to his feet, he tossed his hair and regarded Zhaoka defiantly. "I'm going in." He pushed his way past Zhaoka and into the forge.
Zhaoka remained outside and glanced up at the sky. It was filled with clouds. All of them were high, white streaks, stretched thin across the brief blue of the day. There was no sign of coming snow. He shivered. It was too cold to be out in his shirtsleeves.
Back inside the forge, Zhaoka found that Hahn had set up a camp of sorts on one side of the main chamber, farthest from the fire. He sat cross-legged on the floor. His parka lay beside him, neatly folded. At his other side rested a leather bag. He must have been wearing it under his parka, for Zhaoka hadn't seen it previously. He had also produced a portion of dried meat from somewhere, and he was glaring at Inuvik as he tore at it with his teeth.
Inuvik looked beseechingly at Zhaoka as he came in, but Zhaoka only shrugged. What could he say? If the young man wanted to be here, Zhaoka wouldn't throw him out. Hahn would probably get bored eventually and go home of his own accord.
Zhaoka took up his blade again.
"I'm going fishing," Inuvik said, unconvincingly.
"Go," Zhaoka grunted.
The man departed, and Zhaoka was left alone with Hahn. Having taken up the unfinished blade meant that Zhaoka had his back to him. The young man was so silent, it was easy to forget he was there, to lose himself in his craft. He lost track of the time passing. It might have been a full hour later, or even more, when he finally set his work aside and thought to check on Hahn.
The leather bag Hahn had brought with him apparently contained carving tools and some wood. A few thin carving knives were laid out beside him. Another was in his hands, along with whatever he had been carving, but his hands had stilled. His gaze was intent, but it was not fixed on his carving. It was fixed on Zhaoka.
"What is it?" Zhaoka asked. He submerged the blade in water before setting it aside once more.
"You don't remember anything? About before?"
Hahn nodded. "Sometimes I wish I didn't remember."
"Why is that?" Zhaoka's tone was unconcerned, but he was a little interested. The young man had died and come back to life. That was interesting.
"Would you want to remember dying?"
"I suppose I wouldn't."
"And I remember how things used to be. Before."
Hahn blinked. "When?"
"In the attack. When you died." Horuk hadn't told him the entire story.
The word died hung in the air. Hahn was silent for so long, Zhaoka began to think he was not going to answer, but he spoke at last. "It was before the Fire Navy attacked. Chief Arnook sent us on a mission. To dispatch the enemy admiral. We wore Fire Nation uniforms." His eyes took on a faraway cast, and Zhaoka had the sense that Hahn was no longer truly here in the forge with his tools in his hands. "I made it to the flagship. To the top. There was a platform. It was so high up, so far out at sea."
If Zhaoka had been in the war, he could not remember. It had still been going on when he'd lost his memory, but it had taken time for him to recover. He didn't remember much of it.
Hahn hesitated, then continued haltingly as if his next words were difficult to formulate. "I almost killed him. But I made a mistake. And I fell." He glanced down at the carving in his hand, as if he wasn't sure how it had come to be there. "I never made mistakes before." With a sudden, almost awkward motion, he stood and held out his carving. "Here," he said.
Zhaoka opened his hand, and Hahn dropped the carving into it. The wood was still rough; Hahn had not had time to sand it smooth. Zhaoka hadn't seen any other wooden carvings in Hahn's home. Wood was easier to carve, but more delicate. It was the choice of novice carvers, but also a test for a master. Hahn was neither.
The wood was carved into the shape of a fish, curved and sinewy. It was just long enough to cross the entire width of Zhaoka's palm. "What's this for?" he asked.
"It's a carving," said Hahn, unsmiling. "It isn't for anything."
"I don't have any use for it."
"It's yours." Hahn bent to pick up his tools and tossed them carelessly into his bag. "I don't care what you do with it." He gathered up the bag and his parka, then straightened again. "You can throw it in the fire if you want." He slung the bag over his shoulder, then pulled the parka on over his head. "I'm leaving."
"Go ahead," said Zhaoka.
"I will." Hahn paused long enough to glare at Zhaoka once more, then turned his back on him and departed hurriedly, practically stamping his feet as he went.
Once he had gone, Zhaoka faced the fire and held the carving up to the light. He could have thrown it in the fire, as Hahn had suggested. Nothing would have been easier. But he held on to it, scrutinizing it. There was nothing whatsoever remarkable about the item. It was a simple, traditional design, and it had been executed with an average level of skill.
There wasn't any purpose to such a thing. It wasn't even ornamental. Nonetheless, without any particular care or regard, he tucked the small carving into his belt.
From then on, Hahn seemed to have decided that he could come to the forge whenever he wished. It surprised Zhaoka, how quickly he grew accustomed to the young man's visits. They were not daily, but every few days, without warning, Hahn would appear. Usually he would sit in the same place he had seated himself the first day and quietly carve a bit of wood or rock. If anyone other than Zhaoka was present, he would glare at them. Horuk was unperturbed by this behavior and either glared back or ignored the young man. Arluk simply seemed to find it amusing. Inuvik, however, usually found somewhere else to be while Hahn was there.
"Is he gone?" Inuvik asked one evening as he came in after having absented himself, peering around the forge carefully to make sure Hahn had not lingered on into the dusk.
"He's gone," Zhaoka replied.
"Good. He makes my skin crawl."
"Why is that?" The young man was odd, but not alarming in any way. The Water Tribe had its share of eccentrics, and abnormal behavior was not unheard of. There were men who talked to fish and women who sang to the wind. There were even stories told of some fool who had tried to live among the koalaotters. Compared to them, a gloomy, unsociable young man with a penchant for carving didn't seem so bizarre, even if he had died.
"Just a feeling. A prickle. It's like standing at the Spirit Oasis, only not so strong."
"I don't feel it."
"You don't?" Inuvik frowned.
"I don't know. Everyone else does."
Zhaoka sniffed. "Superstition."
Inuvik handled his beard thoughtfully. "That's not it. You'd know, if you did feel it."
Zhaoka nodded at this, but he remained skeptical.
The next time he saw Hahn, he was not at the forge. He was out ice fishing, alone. The days were so short now, it was already twilight, although he hadn't been out for that long. Soon he would have to light his lantern. He was huddled in the makeshift hide shelter he'd put up next to the hole in the ice. It shielded him from the worst of the wind. He heard footsteps and leaned forward to see who was approaching.
The wind blew Hahn's hair back as he tread carefully across the ice. The rising moon was at his back, and for a moment, Zhaoka could see why Inuvik was unnerved by him. But the moment passed. Hahn drew nearer, and Zhaoka could see the slightly sulky, slightly imperious expression that was so completely human, it was difficult to attribute anything supernatural to its wearer.
"Good evening," said Zhaoka, amused in spite of himself, as Hahn took a seat on the ice beside the hole, outside of the shelter.
Hahn looked at him and nodded. He had brought a line of his own, and Zhaoka watched him set it.
The young man appeared to have no intention of talking to him, and Zhaoka had no desire to press him. The ice did not belong to him; he couldn't prevent anyone from fishing here. The young man did not even ask to share his shelter. The cold didn't seem to bother him, though the wind rose as the sun set.
Zhaoka lit his lantern. It was fully dark before Hahn finally spoke. "I was going to be married."
"Were you?" It made sense. Hahn was of that age, and he would most likely have been married by now if not for his outsider status. Probably he could still be wed, in spite of what he'd said about not belonging to the tribe. Arnook was an understanding chief, and rebuilding the tribe and its families was important to him. Most men of Hahn's age already had at least one child. There had been so many children born since the war.
"Yes, that's what I said," Hahn responded, then added, perplexingly, "Maybe I was married." There was a tug on his line, and he moved quickly, pulling from the icy water a long fish. Its scales glittered silver in the light of the lantern as it thrashed in Hahn's hands. Another moment, and a knife flashed, the fish cut open as Hahn began to gut it, with a practiced ease that Zhaoka envied.
The sound of Hahn's laughter was sudden and unexpected. Hahn looked up and smiled at him. "I like fishing," he announced, matter-of-factly.
Zhaoka felt something. On his skin, like the touch of a needle, just a light pressure, so light he wasn't sure it was there. He rubbed his arms and shook his head briefly. It was nothing, he told himself.
Hahn was still smiling as the fish opened up beneath his knife.
"I'm not especially fond of it," Zhaoka said. "It's too cold."
"This?" Hahn gestured with one hand. "This isn't cold. Just wait until it's really winter."
"Believe me, I'd rather wait."
Hahn laughed again. "You sound like an old man. I like the cold."
Zhaoka sniffed. "You sound like a fool." He felt himself relax. He hadn't realized his muscles had tensed, but he had been sitting here on the ice for a while.
"I'm the fool with the biggest fish," said Hahn, holding his prize aloft, and Zhaoka had to grudgingly admit that it was a bit bigger than the ones he'd caught.
"I caught more," he protested.
"I just started." Hahn's good mood was not dampened by their arguing. In fact, it seemed to be improved. "You're lucky it's dark. I'm even better with a spear."
Zhaoka had already forgotten the strange sensation he'd momentarily experienced, the needling of his skin. When he did remember it, later, he nearly laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it. Allowing Inuvik to give him ideas--he'd never thought he'd see the day.
Zhaoka was awakened from a deep sleep by a touch on his shoulder. Before he was awake, his hand shot out instinctively and closed around a wrist, holding fast. He opened his eyes.
In the low light of the smoldering fire, he saw Hahn's face. Hahn's eyes were narrowed as he pulled his arm back, trying to free his hand.
"What are you doing here?" Zhaoka demanded. He stifled the impulse to raise his voice, keeping it at a low whisper. Horuk and Inuvik were asleep, but their beds were nearby. Inuvik could sleep through a howling gale--he'd have to be able to, the way he snored--but Horuk wasn't always a sound sleeper.
"I don't know," Hahn snapped, less quietly. "Let me go."
Zhaoka sighed. "Very well." He opened his hand, and Hahn jerked his arm away immediately, frowning and rubbing his wrist. "Now go home," said Zhaoka as firmly as possible while still keeping to a whisper, addressing Hahn as he would a dog.
"No," Hahn stayed where he was, kneeling on the floor beside the deep, rounded niche in the wall that was Zhaoka's bed, crossing his arms stubbornly over his chest. "I have to talk to you."
Zhaoka sighed. Unfortunately, he couldn't force Hahn to leave; the young man was touched in the head, but he was not weak. Yet Zhaoka had to do something. If Horuk woke and saw this, he would tell Arluk, and Zhaoka would have to hear the story humorously related for months to come, if not for the rest of his life. "All right, we'll talk. But outside."
The last thing he wanted to do in the middle of a long winter night was to emerge from the warm cocoon of his sleeping furs and make his way outside to talk to a lunatic. But he was too tired to think of a better solution right now, so he sat up. He didn't have to dress. He usually slept wearing as many clothes as possible; otherwise the chill sank into his bones and he found sleep impossible.
Hahn rose to his feet and made his way to the entryway, stooping to pass through. Zhaoka followed, reluctantly. He hoped this wouldn't take long. He wanted to get back to his bed.
The night sky was perfectly clear--strange, for this time of year. There was not a scrap of cloud, and every star was visible. The Moon was nearly full tonight, and her implacable pale face looked down on everything, coolly lighting the snow.
As Zhaoka emerged into the stingingly chill air, he found Hahn's gaze already on him, as curiously fixed as always. He wondered if Hahn looked at anyone else like that. He straightened. Sometimes he wished he had never decided to introduce himself to Hahn. It was not that he disliked the young man--he still wasn't sure what to make of him--but he could be undeniably irritating at times.
"You shouldn't come here," said Zhaoka. "Not at night." He was not too harsh. He wasn't sure how much of what Hahn did he consciously chose to do and how many of his actions were compulsions, impossible for him to resist.
"I had to," said Hahn.
"What do you want?" asked Zhaoka, resigned.
The younger man took a step closer to him, frowning. "I can't believe that you don't feel it."
This wasn't the first time Hahn had said something along these lines. "What do you mean, Hahn?" he asked, not expecting a coherent answer and hoping this wouldn't take too much longer.
Hahn made a strangled noise in his throat, and Zhaoka was surprised to see what looked like genuine pain flash in the young man's eyes. He barely had time to register the fact before Hahn had taken another step and pressed his mouth to Zhaoka's own.
Hahn's tongue slid across his upper lip. He set his hands on the young man's shoulders and pushed him back. "Hahn," he said sternly.
Zhaoka would have reprimanded Hahn, but for the look on his face. His eyes wide, he still wore that pained expression, and he was breathing hard, leaning against Zhaoka's hands as if he was having difficulty standing on his own. "I can't believe that you don't feel it," he said again. "It pulls at me all the time."
"Hahn," said Zhaoka slowly, uncertain of how to proceed from this point. "I don't--"
Zhaoka felt Hahn gather himself, but he didn't have time to prevent him from lunging forward. Hahn could be surprisingly strong and fast, and so he managed to push his mouth against Zhaoka's again, so hard their teeth met. This time, he deepened the kiss, his tongue pushing between Zhaoka's lips.
The second kiss lasted a few moments longer than the first, and this time Zhaoka hesitated to push the younger man away--but he did so nonetheless. Thwarted again, Hahn hissed through his teeth. "I don't know what's wrong with you!"
"With me?" Zhaoka snorted. "You're the one giving unwanted kisses." He could have been angry with Hahn, but somehow the situation was so absurd, he couldn't muster the anger. And he couldn't ignore the warmth that suffused his body, heating him even on this cold night. As his friends had reminded him many times, he didn't have a woman. He couldn't so much as remember having been with one, and he was hardly without desires. He'd lost his memory, not his balls. It wasn't unheard of for men of the tribe to turn to each other for companionship, yet he didn't know what to make of Hahn, who seemed driven to kiss him by some outside force rather than his own will.
"I didn't," said Hahn, still clearly agitated. "You're the one--" Unable to finish his sentence, Hahn instead stepped forward and shoved Zhaoka with both hands.
Zhaoka was on his guard and didn't lose his balance. He also managed, through an effort of will, to keep his temper. "Hahn. What is the matter?"
Hahn took a deep breath, blinked. Zhaoka saw him shudder as he drew away. "I don't know."
"Go home, Hahn," he said, not unkindly. "I'm tired. I want to go back to bed."
"Don't," Hahn pleaded, softly.
"I am going to go to bed," said Zhaoka, slowly and carefully, "and I suggest you do the same."
"Fine!" Hahn threw his hands up in the air. He turned away. With his back to Zhaoka, he was facing the Moon, and Zhaoka saw him raise his head suddenly, saw his body stiffen. Whatever Hahn saw there in the Moon's bright face, he said nothing of it. After a few moments, he lowered his head and began to walk away without a word. His shoulders were slumped forward. The sky was clear and the air was still. There was no sound but the crunch of Hahn's boots on the snow. Zhaoka watched him go.
He was grateful for the warmth when he finally lay down and pulled his furs up over his shoulders. His mind replayed the kiss; he remembered the young man's mouth, hot against his own. He wondered how long it had been since he'd been with someone. It would have been nice to be able to remember that, at least.
The encounter had been so strange, it might as well have been a dream. He closed his eyes. Perhaps, like a dream, it could be forgotten in the morning.
Someone spoke in the darkness, letting him know he wouldn't be able to forget. "Lovers' quarrel?" Horuk's voice was wry.
"Go back to sleep," Zhaoka growled.